A quick review of winter 2013-14

Now that spring is officially here, and snow in Milford has at least retreated from the entrances of our driveways to the corners of our backyards, perhaps it’s okay to close the “I heart winter” playbook and recognize some benefit from Winter 2013-14.

Winter gets rid of insects. Their disappearance is actually temporary, not permanent, though. Many insects have a thick lubricant circulating inside of them that’s more like anti-freeze than blood, and keeps their metabolism running despite the cold. Other insects operate on a complicated schedule whereby, as larvae, they spend the winter under the bark of trees or even deeper within tree trunks, a survival strategy that works particularly well if they’re lucky enough to pick the side of a tree warmed by the sun. Let’s look at three examples of overwintering insects, picking ones on the “Most Wanted” list for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

The emerald ash borer can go sub-zero. At 0 degrees Fahrenheit, researchers found, only 5% of larvae died, at -10F one-third died, and at -30F, 98% died.

In Milford, even 0F would be unusual.

Asian long-horned beetles aren’t so cold-hardy: Larvae tend not to develop below 50F. Thank goodness, because they’re the ones who have the greatest range of tree species in their diets. What about ticks? Ticks can stay alive down to about 10F; but research shows that mild winters (minimum temperatures around 19-20F) are related to increases in tick density, meaning ticks suffered some setbacks this past winter.

In all three of the examples given, even if the insects live, the colder and longer the winter, the longer their growth periods get, which is certainly beneficial, since insects’ reproductive cycle can be once a year without any temperature constraints at all, while cold can extend the cycle to 2 to 3 years.

Winter brings free fertilizer. After all, snow’s a frozen mix of air and water vapor, with almost 80% of that air nitrogen gas, some of it natural, some of it pollution. When nitrogen is captured by snow and falls to the ground, it is absorbed into the soil and into plants via microbial processes that occur even in the cold and that turn the nitrogen into a particular compound form — the “N” in the “N-P-P” on bags of fertilizer — that helps plants grow.

This fertilizer out of thin air provides only a small fraction of the nourishment that comes from commercial products, and it works best in the early spring or late fall, when the ground is somewhat thawed, but under any circumstances it’s better than nothing, and it’s not manufactured.

Then, there’s free mulch. Snow “blankets” the ground in the sense not only of covering it up, but also of insulating and protecting it. Freezing doesn’t penetrate far enough to kill the soil microbes producing nutrients deep-down; garden beds don’t suffer frost heaves; plants don’t get false signals of spring; ….

“Wait! What was that about spring?”

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